By Rasul Bakhsh Rais –
Counter-intuitively, more democracy will actually lead to lesser rallies
In mature democracies that have a well-developed political culture, most of the politics takes place in political institutions, deliberative forums, and think tanks, policy development centres and through civic action and engagement. Pakistan’s political infrastructure is weak on all these fronts. Even the major political parties don’t function as political institutions. They function more like a crowd; led, disciplined and controlled by the ‘great’ leader.
Politics in modern times has many meanings and implications; the most significant among them is dialogue, discussion, debate on alternative policy options and solutions of national problems. Politics is therefore a policy-oriented science and deliberative in nature. Since politics is more about how to resolve issues in a practical way, and less about rhetoric, it uses a pragmatic approach. Countries that have the deep roots of democracy in their history, social values and popular beliefs, use politics to place people at the centre and offer alternative solutions or policy options to the problems of the time.
When competing parties re-enter the political contest during fresh national elections, the worth of parties, their relevance and political standing is judged on account of their performance, future promise and the credibility they have with the masses. It is their record in office and how sound their alternative vision is that the voters finally base their voting decisions on. True, even in stronger democracies, party loyalty, social class and how organised different sectors of the society are matter in the outcomes. But when there is general dissatisfaction, a party is voted out of power and its close rival or rivals are voted in.
The competition between organised parties to do better, promise practical and real solutions and integrity of the leaders, are important drivers of progress through democratic means. Countries like Pakistan, with very poor endowment of democracy, adopt a different approach to politics. That is deception, fraud, double-speak and resorting to cheap politics.
The cheapest politics that one can pursue is playing with the emotions of people, inciting them on non-issues. Our leaders and parties do this politics all the time, while trying to deliver whatever they can in constrained resource and national security environment.
One important strand of Pakistani political culture, which has been a part of our political world for a long time, is the habit of taking to the street, mainly by the opposition political parties. Pakistan has, therefore, a culture of protests, short and long marches, and even violent clashes with the police trying to maintain some order in facing unruly mobs.
Yet another facet of Pakistani culture is the rallies in open places, big parks, stadiums or just any place where the gathering of party could be organised. The rallies, marches and protests are part of democracy as they provide an opportunity to political leadership to mobilise their constituencies. They use these occasions with two objectives in mind. One is always a harsh, bitter and biting critique of political opponents, mainly those that are in the government. Most of the speeches, sloganeering and chanting is negative as these are more about character assassination than a careful examination of the policies of the government. The central point is always that the government has failed, it is corrupt, it has sold out to foreign interests, people and the country have lost sovereignty and if the same lot continues in office, we will lose everything. The second objective is, of course, to present their party and leadership as clean, competent, popular and the real hope for the country.
It is the exactly the same mantra all opposition parties have repeated from anti-Ayub movement down to the present time. We don’t question any group or leader’s right to take this course to politics, but this route to political power, alone and divorced from pragmatic alternative solutions to problems is cheap politics. Moreover, it has a number of other serious political implications for democracy.
First, democratic politics is reduced to slander, mudslinging and personal attacks and accusations. Politics as collective activity for collective good loses its utility. There is no better way of misleading people about democracy than resorting to this kind of politics. This is one of the major reasons that people have lower trust in political forces. Because they have perpetually demonised one another and for a long time, too.
Second, the popular mobilisation by one party prompts other parties to do the same. Imran Khan started first by announcing public rallies. Fearing that IK will take a greater part of its constituency in the Punjab, the PML(N) responded by its own rallies. And overbidding by these two groups over who was a greater opponent to the PPP pushed the later to bring its own crowds into the streets in different parts of the province. In the politics of the street, the communication with the masses is emotive, rhetorical, unrealistic and always spicy with ridicule. Belittling and demeaning political opponents acquires a form of political art, but with disastrous effects—degrading politics and the democratic process.
Finally, democracy and organised, meaningful politics suffers a great deal by over mobilisation. Pakistani society is over-mobilised for what the political class has been doing when we had democratic rule or rule of elected fellows. What is the problem with over mobilisation? It has several but I would like to mention two here. Political mobilisation makes the parties to patronise non-political groups like shady unions, interests groups of professional to violent student organisations, and often use them to have an edge over the opponents. Quite often, these groups branch off and take to the streets on minor issues, causing social unrest and political instability. They are further encouraged by support of rival political parties.
The other issue is that masses, on their own, particularly in the age of open media looking for ‘breaking news’ stories, block roads, disrupt traffic, attack government installations and fight brick battles with the police. What we see today in the phenomena of street politics are the seeds of anarchy and lawlessness. There is growing pressure from so many interest groups and parties and so much frequency these days that civil life appears to be paralysed in different parts in the country. It is not just the daily target killings and political murders and disruptive activities of so many ethnic and religious groups in Karachi, but nationwide culture that we have accumulated over the past four decades.
As long as the street offers cheap politics, some good prospects and some immunity to current political groups in power or in the opposition, they will use it, quite unmindful of the fact they may be hurt by the same.